The Portrait of a Mother- Amma by Perumal Murugan

How often do we take our Ma, Mumma, Mummy, Mom, Aai, Amma, Ammi, and the numerous names that we call her, for granted? It is only during her absence that we recall her true worth. Perumal Murugan’s biographic novel about his mother, Amma, is an homage to motherhood. The story of a vibrant lady whose values are deeply rooted in the rustic, rural traditions, Amma stands as a metaphor of the saying Old is Gold in a constantly evolving world.

Remember Khushwant Singh’s Portrait of a Lady, Amma is today’s Portrait of a Mother. A village simpleton who excels in farming, household chores, natural remedies, and has a solution to every problem. She stands between Murugan and his father who share a strained relationship often butting in between to stop their fights and quarrels. Murugan’s mother is a pillar of strength and defines his relationship with the other family members.

Amma deals with a serious issue which most housewives in the village’s do- alcoholism. With Murugan’s father being addicted to alcohol it leads to a strain on the household finances. Amma takes to working doubly hard to make sure both her sons can continue their education, she can run the house sustainably, and most importantly she can cope up with the ever-growing medical bills of her husband. This leads to regular fights, abuses, cracks in the husband-wife relation but, Amma never lets such negativity come in the way of her family and destroy it. No matter how hard the situation is she fights with a smile and looks for ways to overcome it effortlessly without letting them influence the minds of her young sons adversely. But alcoholism is an addiction which corrodes the body and mind slowly and steadily, till it withers away. It claims Murugan’s father when he is only twenty years old and transforms his mother to join the white sari-clad women of the village.

Widowhood does not come easy to anyone especially those belonging to the generation gone by and from rural life. ‘If they dreamt about a woman clad in a white sari, they thought of her as Goddess Mariamman and rejoiced; but they didn’t approve of a woman in white appearing before them in person’. Such is the irony of being a widowed woman. The hypocritical society would only respect a woman till she is clad in red but the moment her husband dies, numerous traditions and rituals are forced on them. They are often isolated from the daily village norms and made to live a life following social distancing, embracing loneliness and away from the merry-making of the village life.

Through Amma’s eyes, Murugan describes the beauty of the rural community. A community constituting of farmers, the primary unit of food-givers for the Indian society; and yet how neglected they are as a community. The worse living conditions, lack of proper farming facilities and infrastructure, social and caste-based underestimation and bullying, ever-growing prices of food in the market and not to mention the several levied taxes often drive these innocent souls to claim their own lives to escape the burden of living. Yet, when the fields are nourished and nurtured by these very hands and grows beautiful yields many take to penning down their joy and emotions that they feel by looking at them. This is another situation in a polarised world where men find joy in the simple lifestyle and yet turn a blind eye when it comes to its preservation and upliftment in the society.

With time Amma grows older and gets used to living alone. She takes to loving her plants, utensils, house, and regularly works for their upkeep. She is fiercely independent and strong-willed. However, it is a universal truth that old age takes away the ability to perform various tasks and reduces the capability of working as before. But Amma having worked all her life endlessly finds it difficult to not work at all. She cannot and almost refuses to adjust to the newer surroundings where life has been made easier with the introduction of machines. She rejects any aid from anyone including Murugan as it becomes symbolic to her inactiveness and reflects her inability in certain cases. It also makes her overtly emotional with heightened sensitivity remembering her younger days. Elders are emotional and it is the duty of the younger ones to take care of their sensitivity and emotions.

Amma’s life has been that of a bittersweet fruit with its own moments of ups and downs. Her relations have taken different turns with each member of her family and yet she stands as a rock protecting them till all her life. Her ever smiling and ever young spirit needs to be commended by the readers. Murugan pens down about his mother but in doing so he has stirred the emotions of every reader and their relationship with their mother’s. Amma is quite capable of arousing buried emotions and sentiments for one’s mother through the journey of only a few pages. Sometimes, relations should not be taken for granted and Murugan beautifully reminds the readers of the same. Amma has been translated by Nandini Murali and Kavitha Muralidharan and without them, this beautiful story of a wonderful woman would not have reached hundreds of people.

No. of Pages: 191

Publisher: Eka, Westland

Available on Flipkart / Amazon

There’s Gunpowder in the Air: Manoranjan Byapari translated by Arunava Sinha

‘Dripping from Rajat’s bullet-riddled chest the blood took on the shape of India’s map as it flowed down the wall’

Set against the backdrop of  Bengal’s Naxalite movement in the ’70s, There’s Gunpowder in the Air is a daunting description of the activities within the four walls of a correctional home.  What laymen understand to be a place for robbers, murderers, rapists, kidnappers, and those who have gone against the law; the jails, are a world on their own. The daily happenings within the precincts are elaborately described in the novel.

It all begins with the imprisonment of five Naxal revolutionaries. Young educated men, who stay away from regular jail gossips but definitely have a philosophy and determination of their own to fight against the injustices brought upon them by feudalism. When a petty thief Bhagoban is sent in as a spy by the jailor to be amongst them, and to take note of their vicious plans, does the story pick up pace. However, what happens when Bhagoban starts having a change of heart upon meeting the young comrades?

The novel is complete with all the small nuances of prison life. The story of a bandaged ghost called Bandiswala keeps everyone on their feet, especially on full moon nights. In fact, the poor ghost was found easier to blame for anything that went awry rather than suspecting living men. His story has often been reiterated and discussed along with the lack of ritualistic initiatives to cordon off the evil spirit. If a wicked ghost wasn’t enough, stories of pilferages with the common rations and smuggling substances of abuse were not far behind. Gossips always pointed a finger towards ‘abc’ or ‘xyz’ including both jail guards and prisoners.  But hardly could anyone ever be caught in the act; and even if one was, there were ways to move out of trouble.

Amidst all the comic and witty turns, what Byapari explores the best throughout the novel is human emotions.  Hunger and poverty were always common reasons leading to one becoming a petty thief or a rogue. Outside the disciplined walls, each had their own families. Though they were allowed to meet them, many were disowned and many were shameful of their children being called ‘children of the criminal’. These pent up emotions along with severe ideological affiliations often led them to act on chance. Sometimes leading to their success and at other times, brutally crippling their will, for the rest of their lives or worse, curbing their lives itself.

There’s Gunpowder in the Air is just not the name of the novel, but holds much significance as a symbol of revolt, freedom, loyalty, guilt, betrayal, sacrifice and duty. Gunpowder is usually used for rifles, guns and the likes which are used for various illegal purposes upfront; but to me, it signifies rebellion – an act put together by many. Every individual taking part in the rebellion or its trial suffers from extreme emotional upheaval but their decision to take part in it or not; and to live up to the expectations of other comrades is their decision alone. Freedom, loyalty, guilt, betrayal, sacrifice; and duty are the results of the actions that one performs during a rebellion. Each individual holds great significance and their contributions can never be compared to one another.

Byapari weaves a lucid tale of Naxal prisoners in erstwhile Bengal fighting for their Rights and Motherland by radical means. But Rebellions owe as much to Fate as to the individuals who take part in it; and their success or failures are divided between both. Only time will tell the story of the Naxal prisoners and their Fate during their imprisonment.

Definitely a must-read whether in Bangla- Batashe Baruder Gandha-or in English to understand the psyche of the perceived rebels. The book is bound to raise questions about the pre-conceived notions about the Naxalities and make you revisit the era and re-interpret the ideologies in a new light.

No. of pages: 162

Publisher: Eka, Westland

Available on:Amazon/ Flipkart

Translated from: (Bengali) Batashe Baruder Gandha